An excerpt from the book, Thirteen Kinds of Love by Soumya Bhattacharya.
This was his first trip to a place outside Bombay; he was still wary of calling it a holiday.
The woman, in regulation oversized shades, a long, full-sleeved purple T-shirt that came to well below her thighs, her walk loose-limbed, a suggestive swing in her buttocks as though she was on the ramp, walked past Shailesh. Her olive skin was smooth and spotless. She probably had an all-year tan. Full of the confidence born of youth and radiant beauty – and an awareness of both – she looked around the strip of beach, finally zeroing in on a place to sit. Then she unrolled her pink towel, put her bag on the sand and settled down – cross-legged, back upright – a couple of feet away from Shailesh.
She sat facing him. She wanted the sun on her face, so she raised it – her tanned, slender neck, arched, towards the sky, embracing the warmth, delighting in it. Shailesh could bear to have the sun only on his back; he had kept his T-shirt on; the skin of his bare back stung in the Mediterranean heat. This weather must make you feel at home, people said to him when he visited Europe. How could he make them realize that it did not? In Bombay, which was hotter and stickier, he was not in any way really exposed to the heat and mugginess: the air conditioner ran all the time at home, in the car, at the office; he lived in a kind of parallel, temperature-controlled, tending-towards-Arctic-if-he-felt-like-it world. Here, while taking the public transport or walking, the sun – elemental and raw – scorched him. There was no buffer between him and the heat.
She sat facing him. She wanted the sun on her face, so she raised it – her tanned, slender neck, arched, towards the sky, embracing the warmth, delighting in it.
On this beach, and on others in France and Italy, Nandini and Shailesh used to play a private game. When someone young and beautiful – and seemingly proud of being so – came and sat near them, they would try to guess whether she would go topless. Looking at this woman, Shailesh remembered that old game. Yes, this one will, Nandini. This one will. The thing about dark glasses was that while you could look at what or whom you wanted to look at – say, the woman in front of you – there was no way the woman could know that you were looking at her. It was just as true the other way about, of course. Shailesh could not tell whether the woman was observing him.
She uncrossed her long legs, spread them out in parallel lines in front of her, then crossed them at the ankles, the palms of her hands flat on either side of her. She put in hours in the gym; you could tell from her perfectly formed arms and shoulders, the taut flatness of her stomach. She rummaged in her bag for something she did not find. Then she grasped the edges of her T-shirt and, in one fluent movement, pulled it up and over her body. She jerked her head free from it and shook her hair right back in place. She placed the T-shirt, now a balled-up kitten, on the towel beside her. She was not wearing a bikini top underneath. She sat cross-legged again, worshipping the sun.
Shailesh had stopped reading. The woman took out her mobile phone. She smiled. Shailesh tried to imagine her clothed, wearing a summer frock and silhouetted against the fading light in an arched doorway with a stained-glass window above it and church bells ringing in the background. He tried to imagine her without her bikini bottom. He smiled back.
Now that he had retired, Shailesh appreciated more fully what his job had meant to him in the months following Nandini’s death. He had returned to it within a week of her passing away. His staff did not know quite how to deal with him. More deference or heightened distance? Condolences or calm professionalism? What would he want? The truth was that Shailesh had not known himself. He had probably wanted all of those things and none of them. But in that period of silent, confused, protracted mourning, of trying to learn to live from moment to moment, in each moment, and finding each moment just as hard to live in as the other, his job was the one changeless thing in a world in which nothing was as he had known for thirty years. The routine of it, its occasional irritations and dullness – the dullness about which he used to so bitterly complain – were invaluable.
He felt – irrationally, he now realized – annoyed when people asked how he was getting on. He found it crass. He found it insensitive when they didn’t.
His son and his daughter-in-law visited from Pennsylvania and spent a fortnight with him. Although he never said it (what was there to say?), he resented it when they tidied up Nandini’s belongings, when they cooked with the utensils that she had touched nearly every day, when they adjusted the tall lamp in the living room and, because of the fractionally altered position, the light fell at a different angle. To Shailesh, the apartment seemed crowded with their presence. Although they were intelligent and unobtrusive, unfailingly kind and sensitive, it seemed to him that merely by being there, they were suffocating him, leaving him with not enough space to grieve and remember.
In those days of obsessive remembering, almost anything anyone did felt like a violation – a desecration of Nandini’s memory, of memories he wanted to never let go. It was a kind of obsessive remembering, trying to recollect and reconstruct with vividness many of the things that he associated with her: a certain tilt of the head when she was amused, a certain gesture of the hand when she tried to remonstrate with him. But like an image seen from too close, the details would get blurred or distorted. And Shailesh would begin to feel terrified that he would forget, that he was already beginning to forget.
Image Credit: Soumya Bhattacharya/ HarperCollins Publishers India
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Excerpted with permission from the book Thirteen Kinds of Love by Soumya Bhattacharya, HarperCollins India.